I recently took over [as chef] at a new restaurant where the corporate policy is no stages [free interns or trails]. I understand the HR point, but what do you recommend in terms of developing new talent?
– Chef, Philadelphia, PA
Recently, unpaid internships have surfaced as a problem in many industries, restaurants among them. If not implemented correctly (and they often aren’t), they may violate wage and hour laws. Since unpaid interns are not on payroll, interns may not be protected as an employee would be from problems like sexual harassment and if injured, workers’ compensation is also a sticky issue in many states. In this column, we have previously addressed the Department of Labor’s criteria for a legal unpaid internship.
Your new company is smart not to allow unpaid internships. While there is certainly some benefit to free labor, the liability of a possible wage and hour violation, on-the-job injury or other problem is just too great for some restaurants. For example, what if your intern does something that results in fines on a health inspection? Will the inspector understand that the intern is not a real employee?
In order to combat these problems but still maintain a pipeline of talent, many restaurants are insisting that all workers, student interns included, are officially put on payroll. If that’s cost prohibitive for your restaurant, try the opposite approach and rather than taking student interns from a culinary school, go to the school and offer to give a demo or volunteer to assist a class where you can handpick top talent. Even with paid interns, if you specify a clear probationary period in your employee manual and can process new hires quickly, you can get a similar benefit to an unpaid stage—it will just cost you a bit more.